Felice Picano: An Interview
Daniel M. JaffeIn Gay Fiction Speaks (Columbia University Press), Richard Canning writes, “Felice Picano's contribution to contemporary gay literature in his own work has been immense. His founding of one of the first gay publishing firms, SeaHorse Press, has fostered a profound growth in the gay literary genre. Over the course of the last several decades, Picano, with members of the pioneering gay literary group, the Violet Quill, is responsible for the most heralded gay literature of the 1980s and 1990s.” Felice has won awards and international recognition for written work spanning more than 20 volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, and memoirs. In particular, his novel, Like People in History (Penguin), garnered the Ferro-Grumley Award, a Lambda Book Award, Le Figaro Literraire: Best Foreign Book of the Year Award, and Gay Times of England Best Novel Award.
The “official” beginning of the gay liberation movement took place at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, where a group of gay men physically fought police harassment at a gay bar for the first time. The “Stonewall Uprising” sparked not only a political movement, but a cultural one as well. Felice’s newest book, Art and Sex in Greenwich Village (Avalon) is an insider’s account of the rise of contemporary gay literature and culture throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
One literary group in particular, the Violet Quill Club, was to become the single most important circle of gay writers in U.S. history. I asked Felice how such a group of unusually talented authors found one another. Did they have a sense of the group’s historic importance while participating?
“That group of writers—Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, George Whitmore, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Christopher Cox and myself—in retrospect, came together in a serendipitous but actually sort of fated way,” he replied. “But you have to keep in mind that three decades ago there were so many fewer gay people out or even partly out, that I could know more than half of them, even in a very large city like New York.
“Holleran, Ferro and Grumley were in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The last two became life partners, and all three remained in contact over the years. I knew Holleran and White socially from Fire Island, through friends and boyfriends. At different times, White and I dated George Whitmore. White was living with Chris Cox when the group formed. After the group ‘broke up,’ Holleran, Ferro, Grumley and I still associated, in fact more closely than before, right up to Robert and Michael’s deaths in 1988. Now that the other four are gone, and even though we live a whole continent apart, Holleran, White and I remain in close contact. Edmund read me a chapter of My Lives, his latest book, on the phone. Holleran and I e-mail and talk on the phone regularly.
“I doubt that we knew about our ‘historical importance’ at the time. However, we certainly did consciously write the literature we felt was needed for the huge task of gay self-definition and identity. (A bunch of gay and lesbian individuals unallied to us also rose to that unspoken challenge.) But yes it was all very deliberate and very conscious on our part. There were these huge lacunae in the arts that needed filling after Gay Liberation and we knew that if we didn’t begin to do it, that no one else would.
“Many other older gay authors were totally closeted and advised us to stay in the closet ourselves. And once we did write gay material, it soon became clear that with a few exceptions, the mainstream press and even the so-called liberal and literary small presses weren’t about to take on gay and lesbian work and get it out to the public, no matter how good the writing was.
“The mainstream publishers did publish a little, eventually, my own work included, but only if they deemed it ‘commercial.’ And, in fact, if books like The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick), The Lure (Felice Picano), Rubyfruit Jungle (Rita Mae Brown), and Dancer From the Dance (Andrew Holleran) hadn’t sold several hundreds of thousand of copies each in the late 1970s and made a lot of money for publishers, there probably still wouldn’t be any gay literature today. The publishers never understood what was at stake or at issue for us, but clearly they recognized a ‘market’ for gay and lesbian writing.
“The homophobia among the literary establishment of the time was so extensive, it was virtually complete—even from closeted gay people who were at times our worst enemies. When I went around the U.S. as an openly gay novelist on book tour in 1979, it was so unheard of we really had no idea what to expect. Would anyone show up? Would I be assassinated? We had no clue.
“The first article about gay literature in The New York Times magazine had a border of dead pansies around it! Can you believe that? And that was as late as 1993!”
Felice began writing Art and Sex in Greenwich Village about four and a half years ago. “What prompted me,” he explained, “was the exhibit I curated and had going around the country titled ‘Early Gay Presses of New York.’ This exhibit came about because a librarian/archivist pal saw some of the SeaHorse and Gay Presses of New York (GPNY) art work I had laying about my spare room, asked to see more, and when he saw that I’d saved many boxes of stuff from the presses he suggested I archive and/or exhibit it. At the time, ONE Institute, at the U.S.C. campus in Los Angeles, was just opening an art gallery. Mark Thompson and Stuart Timmons there helped me put up the show.
“It had since been shown at the San Francisco Main Library and at the Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At each place I’ve given a talk, which turned into a lecture and mini tour of the show. The question and answer part to these lectures became longer, more complex, and really quite interesting; but a lot of the questions were unanswerable because I simply didn’t know what the answers were.
“At first, I thought the book would be a memoir, like my three previous ones, but as I wrote it, I looked at those questions I’d copied down at the Q & A sessions and there was so much else that needed to be explained: why did I choose a poetry book to launch SeaHorse Press and why plays by an unknown author to launch GPNY? These are not major gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender genres today. And so I explained, then did more research into their background, interviewed the few people still alive who’d taken part in the presses, investigated more, and thus the book evolved into the history/memoir hybrid it now is. Fact-filled but easy to read.”
Given that Felice had already achieved acclaim for his own writing by the time he founded SeaHorse Press and co-founded GPNY, I was curious as to why he became a publisher. He explained, “I was stupid, and I was naïve. All three of us co-founders of GPNY, Larry Mitchell, Terry Helbing, and myself, later admitted that we were stupid and naïve when we started out. Thank God for that, really, because had we known how much work and trouble it would be, we probably wouldn’t have done it.
“But more seriously, the truth is, we might have done it anyway, because we could see that there was this large and rapidly growing gay community all over the country and world almost a decade after Stonewall, and that it, and we, were in need of literature to help us all define ourselves.
“We three, and the members of the Violet Quill Club too, believed that literature would help us identify as gay, and this would aid us in becoming a socially aware and active minority. Thus we might eventually obtain gay legal and medical rights, or at the least keep ourselves out of jail, and keep us away from the prevalent anti-gay violence of the day. It might also help make us healthy and feel safe and nurtured, and possibly, even though it seemed only a remote dream then, help us be contented and free.
“Add to all that do-goodism the fact that I’d made more money than I’d expected to with my first three (non-gay) novels and so I could sort of throw some away on a failed enterprise like gay publishing, if it came to that. And remember that my partners and I never quit our ‘day jobs’ while running the presses, and oddly we were always in the black. Several of the titles we published sold extremely well. Very few of our titles sold less than two printings—about 5500 copies! Several became films. We sold paperback, and book club rights, and even foreign language rights to several titles. So we succeeded in our own terms, by putting out about a hundred books no one else would have done, and we were successful by the book industry’s criteria.”
What brought GPNY to a close? “AIDS, in a nutshell. Everyone got sick. Everyone died. I was already doing one partner, Terry’s, work in addition to my own writing when my closest friends, my brothers and their wives, and then my life partner got sick. Soon I was nursing several people regularly, in addition to my usual, more or less triple, workload. When my other GPNY partner, Larry Mitchell’s, macular degeneration of both eyes worsened and he could no longer see well, I just couldn’t find enough hours in the day to take on any further work. And when my partner died, I went into a spiral of depression. That’s when I closed the presses.
“You have to understand that by then, around 1991, over half of our authors, artists, photographers, and production people were already dead. In another half decade, another quarter or more succumbed to HIV. I’d say that by the year 2000 maybe ninety-five percent of the people I ever knew were deceased.”
In addition to Felice’s contributions to literature, he also contributed to health education by co-authoring two updated versions of The Joy of Gay Sex (HarperCollins), which had originally been co-authored by Dr. Charles Silverstein and Edmund White. In its several iterations, this book is likely the single-most widely read guide to gay men’s physical and emotional health. I asked Felice to comment on its impact.
“You have to recall that I was part of the group that originally met to form Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a leading AIDS prevention/healthcare organization in New York. Why? Because two of my close friends were the first confirmed cases of AIDS on the East Coast—before it even had a name. So this activism shouldn’t be surprising.
“Later on, Charles and my book were used to spearhead or reactivate—by our appearances and book tours, articles, interviews and further publications—non-existing or inert AIDS education movements in France, Japan, Germany and Israel. My co-author, Charles Silverstein, continues to travel and spread the message and has recently been doing so in Slovenia and Vietnam.
“I guess it worked out because Charles and I were already well known, and already established in other fields—he in psychology, I in literature. And also we were older, not hot young guys out there saying go ahead have sex, which is what we did say, all the time: have sex, just do it safely. Coming from us, it probably went over better, easier, especially in macho or tradition-bound cultures that listen to older authorities.
“My amazement was how few gays and lesbians in the mainstream American media supported our book and our drive for gay men’s health. Meanwhile heterosexuals in the media and especially from other minorities—Latinos and even the African American community—welcomed us and helped spread our message. Now, that’s being responsible.”
Learn more about Felice Picano through his web site.
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
and his web site is here.